Since the invention of photography, women were interested in mastering this new art form. However, it was a field dominated by men, and women were not perceived as ‘professionals’ the way men were. The pioneering women in photography were usually closely associated with their male counterparts.
In the nineteenth century, most female photographers were European and helped their male family members, spouses, and friends who were photographers. Women’s success with photography came in Northern Europe first, when women in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden began opening their studios as early as the 1840s.
Wealthy women in Britain began to develop photography as an art form in the 1850s. The United States was slower to catch up, as the first studios run by women only started popping up in the 1890s in New York.
There were several photographic associations in big cities that encouraged women to join. The Linked Ring, a British association, run by men, allowed women into the association and promoted artistic photography. Famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer of the pictorialism style, invited women to join his Photo-Secession movement. In Austria, it was a Viennese – Dora Kallmus who made photographic studios a fashionable place to gather for the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy.
In America, women were still considered amateur photographers, but that didn’t stop them from exhibiting their work at exhibitions. Their work was more inclusive; they photographed more than just landscapes, portraits, and celebrities, and chose subjects like Native peoples. Women’s success continued and developed with the onset of photojournalism. Women became photojournalists in the early 1900s and then had success during World Wars I and II.
Developing Photographic Technique
As many people know, it was English and French gentlemen who pioneered photography, helping to improve the camera and innovate new techniques. However, it’s less known that women were also involved in this pioneering photography process.
Henry Fox Talbot was a pioneer in photography in the 1830s and 40s. His wife Constance was also involved in helping him develop the art of photography, and she was an avid photographer herself. Constance was the first female photographer on record, with her blurry image of one of Irish poet Thomas Moore’s short verses.
Henry Fox Talbot taught his method of photogenic drawing and calotype process to a woman named Anna Atkins. Atkins studied the calotype process and even learned from its inventor John Herschel, allowing her to create her own cyanotype photograms of dried algae. She later published the first book to contain photographic illustrations, called Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).
It was botanists who took an interest in photography and became early amateur photography pioneers. John Dillwyn Llewelyn, a botanist, learned photography from his wife Emma, who was a cousin to Henry Fox. Emma went on to do all of her husband’s printing, but she was also an avid photographer herself.
The First Female Professional Photographers
As photography became an art form and a career, women with financial means began to work as photographers and studio owners for photo shoots. Photography quickly turned from a hobby into a business.
Franziska Möllinger (1817-1880) from Switzerland began her career by taking daguerreotypes of the beautiful Swiss landscapes and published a collection of lithographic copies of the scenes in 1844. At the same time, she was also a successful portrait photographer. Two decades later, another Swiss photographer Alwina Gossauer (1841-1926), became known as the first female ‘professional photographer.’
French couple André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri and wife Geneviève Èlisabeth created their own photography business. André is known as the man who created and patented the carte de visite – a small photograph. Once he moved to Paris, his wife became responsible for their photography business – a daguerreotype studio in Brest.
In Germany, Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann became the first female professional photography after she opened a studio in 1843 with her husband. After his death, she ran the business alone. A decade later, in Hamburg, Emilie Bieber opened her own daguerreotype studio, which she ran until 1885.
In Denmark, Thora Hallager was one of the most famous female photographers. She had a successful studio in Copenhagen from the early 1850s. One of her best works is her famous portrait of Hans Christian Andersen, the most well-known Danish author.
In Sweden, photography quickly became very popular, and women opened successful studios. Brita Sofia Hesselius practiced daguerreotype photography from 1845 in the city of Karlstad. Another woman using the same technique was Marie Kinnberg of Gothenburg in 1852.
In 1860, Hilda Sjölin was the first female photographer in the city of Malmö. It was a woman, Bertha Valerius, chosen to be the official photographer of the Royal Swedish Court in 1864, a great honor for a female photographer. The 1860s were a golden age of female photography, as there were at least 15 female photographers on record in Sweden. In the 1880s, Anna Hwass became the first female chosen as a board member of the Swedish Photographic Society.
Photography became an original art form in which women became the pioneers who contributed to the development of techniques and equipment.
Many of the advancements in the art of photography were happening in Great Britain. In the later part of the 1850s, Lady Clementina Hawarden started studying photography. She took many landscape photos on her estate in Dundrum, Ireland. She moved to London in 1862, where she opened a studio in her flat. She used many props in her photography, and her daughters, clothed in the modern fashions of the day, were often the models for her portraits. Her exhibitions earned Lady Hawarden several medals for her photography from the Photographic society in 1863-4.
Another considerable influence in the photography world was Julia Margaret Cameron, who only started taking photos in her late forties. She campaigned for photography to be taken seriously as an art form. Her work includes hundreds of portraits of celebrities, children, and members of high society. Many of her contemporaries criticized her techniques, mainly her use of soft focus, but it did not stop her from her work. The soft focus technique later actually became the basis for a movement in photography called Pictorialism in the early 20th century.
Other notable female photographers include Caroline Emily Neville and her sisters, who exhibited their photos in 1854 at the London Photographic Society. They took many waxed-paper negatives of architecture in Kent. Napoleon III’s mistress, Italian photographer Virginia Oldoini captured her own life in photographs. She would dress up in fashionable clothing and costumes and take portraits.
Women Working in Studios Around the World
Women in all parts of the world began opening photography studios in the 1850s and1860s. In Malta, it was in the 1860s and 70s that photography studios became popular, and Sarah Ann Harrison opened a studio in 1864 in Senglea, Malta. In the capital city Valletta, Adelaide Conroy, and her husband opened a studio.
Shima Ryu and her husband Shima Kakou opened a studio in Tokyo, Japan, in 1866. A few years later, in New Zealand, a woman named Elizabeth Pulman and her husband opened up their own studio in Auckland, where Elizabeth ran the business her whole life.
In the Nordic countries of Europe, Denmark became a photo studio hotspot. Frederikke Federspiel learned photography in Hamburg and went back to her home in Aalborg, where she opened up a studio in the 1870s. In Copenhagen, it was 28-year-old Mary Steen, who made a mark in the photography world with her portraits of Princess Alexandra. In 1884, she became an official court photographer, the first Danish woman to hold this position. In a smaller town, Horsens, Benedicte Wrensted opened her studio in the 1880s. She later moved to the United States, where she was known for her photographs of Native Americans.
In London, one remarkable woman, Alice Hughes (1857-1939), who studied at London Polytechnic College, created a successful business out of photography. After opening her studio on Gower Street in 1891, she found massive success with her photos of fashion, royalty, children, and aristocratic society. Her studio employed 60 women and became a bustling place, with as many as 15 photo sittings a day.
An interesting phenomenon was taking place in Vienna, Austria. Women, many of the Jewish, opened up photo studios and outnumbered the men. There were more than 40 studios run by women, the most famous being Dora Kallmus’. Kallmus, who went by the nickname Madame d’Ora opened up a studio in 1907.
She was also already a member of the Vienna Photographic Society since 1905. Her success with the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy gave her the financial stability she needed and opened a second studio in Paris with her friend Arthur Benda. They were a dominant force in fashion photography in the 1930s. The studio was more than just a place for art, fashion, and creativity, as it became a meeting place for the city’s intellectual elites.
Other female photographers from Vienna include Trude Fleischmann, who took many nude photographs, most notably of a dancer Claire Bauroff. Claire Beck (1904-1942), a Jewish photographer who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and Margaret Michaelis-Sachs (1902-1985), known for her shots of Jewish life, are also notable figures of the Viennese photography scene.
In the same period across the pond in New York City, Alice Boughton opened her photography studio on East 23rd street. She studied photography and art at the Pratt School of Art and Design. She became one of New York’s most distinguished portrait photographers. Not far at the famous 5th avenue, a German-Algerian, Zaida Ben-Yousuf, opened a studio in 1895. She specialized in photography of American celebrities.
In the United States, it wasn’t until the roaring twenties that women’s photography flourished. As women gained more independence and gender roles became flexible, women began to make financial investments in photography and studios. Although gender inequality and societal pressure were still highly prevalent, it became more acceptable for women to work as photographers and showcase their creativity. Magazines such as American Amateur Photography allowed women to contribute and showcase their work – whether they were professionals or amateurs and allowed them to show their talent to the public. In the 19th century, around 10% of photographers were women. By the early 20th century, the percentage nearly doubled, yet many women working as photographers were still working alongside their husbands, and most were not independent.
Pictorialism is a form of creative photography where beauty and composition of the subject is the focus and not a depiction of reality. Pictorialism was popular from the late 1860s to the 1920s. Pictorialists believed that the camera is like any other artistic tool and should be used creatively to create artistic works. American photographer Alfred Stieglitz popularized Pictorialism. His collaborators who helped develop Pictorialism were two women: Gertrude Käsebier and Eva Watson-Schütze. This group of professional photographers created the Photo-Secession Movement, which advocated for photography to be considered a pure art form. Their works were innovative in terms of composition and became well-known for their portraits. Gertrude Käsebier became famous in all of America for her photos of Native Americans. Her assistants Alice Boughton and Anne Brigman were known for their nude photographs.
The Linked Ring, a prominent photographic society, had many women as board members and contributors. Mary Devens and Gertrude Käsebier were both elected members of the organization and appreciated for their work with experimental printing techniques. Other women on the board included a Canadian-German Minna Keene (1861-1943).
The Beginnings of Landscape & Street Photography
Landscape photography was trendy in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. Women like Sarah Ladd (1860-1927) took many landscape photos of rural America. She had an entire exhibition on Oregon and the Columbia River. Remarkably, the images were being developed in a darkroom she made in her houseboat. Her photos were rediscovered and exhibited at the Portland Art Museum in 2008. Another photographer Evelyn Cameron took a series of images in the state of Montana, photographing the places, the landscapes, and the people. Her work was later published as a book in the 1970s.
Laura Gilpin, another American photographer, took a series of photos in the 1930s of the American southwest, which included landscapes and images of local Native Americans. Cultural works like these helped preserve part of American history. In New York, Berenice Abbott created a collection of black and white images of the city with funding from the Federal Art Project between 1929-1938. Abbott’s work shows the changes in New York, and she captured many of the buildings which no longer exist in present-day New York.
South of the border in Mexico, Lola Alvarez Bravo (1903-1993) was the first female photographer in that country. She wanted to preserve the authentic culture of Mexico through photographs, especially portraits of locals.
Women in Photojournalism
Jessie Tarbox (born in Canada in 1870) was the with being the first American female photojournalist. In 1899, she took a series of photos of the Massachusetts state prison, which she published in the Boston Post. As a result of her success, other American newspapers hired her to take pictures they used in articles.
Another famous photojournalist was Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875-1937). She was, in fact, an explorer and took many photos of her expeditions around the world. She published her work in the National Geographic magazine. She was hired by Harper’s Magazine to be the official World War I correspondent in Europe, and she was the sole female journalist allowed to visit trenches. Her colleague Helen Johns Kirtland was another war correspondent and photojournalist based in France, publishing for Leslie’s Weekly.
It was another woman, Margaret Bourke-White, who was the first foreign person permitted to photograph inside the Soviet Union’s major industrial centers. She was also the first woman to be a war correspondent photojournalist for America’s Life magazine.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the U.S Resettlement Administration hired a woman, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), to photograph the displaced families and migrant workers of America. Her images were iconic back then and are still printed today in the wake of other migrant crises. Eudora Welty, a novelist, also took an interest in the families affected by the Great Depression. She took a series of photos of families in the rural Mississippi region.
The early 1930s saw Marvin Breckenridge Patterson publish her travel photographs from around the world in popular magazines such as National Geographic, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. During the same period, Marion Carpenter became an official photographer for the White House and first female national press photographer.
At the onset of World War II, women returned to being war correspondents and photojournalists in Europe. Back in the United States, Edie Harper was photographing the impact of World War II at home. Harper was an Army Corps of Engineers photographer; her work showed American war infrastructures, such as hydro dams and factories, and became famous.
In the 1940s, Mary Ellen Mark emerged as a leading photographer, filmmaker, documentary photographer, and photojournalist. She was a specialist in advertising and portraiture as well. Mark’s most notable work includes her photos of marginalized people in society – those who were not part of the mainstream community. She created a documentary called Ward 81 with Martin Bell. As part of her work, she lived with the patients inside Oregon State Hospital’s security ward. Her work was published in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. Mark became a member of Magnum Photos – a photographer cooperative in 1977. She won many awards and prizes during her lifetime, including the Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman house.
Surrealist Movement & Female Photographers
Surrealism was a popular avant-garde art movement that started in Europe in 1917, associated with artists like Salvador Dali. Surrealism explores the unconscious mind and rejects the rational. Surrealist photography was quick to express itself through works by Man Ray with his double exposure photos. French female photographer Claude Cahun (1894-1954) created staged portraits of herself. André Breton was a leading figure in the Surrealism movement, and his writings inspired women like Dora Maar in their photography. Her photographic works capture the faces of people like a drawing by an artist. An American, Lee Miller, used Surrealist techniques in her fashion photography. She was associated with artist Pablo Picasso and drew inspiration from his work. She is known for her unique nude photographs.
Surrealism was a form of artistic photography that inspired female photographers for decades. Swiss photographer Henriette Grindat (1923-1986) collaborated with André Breton and author Albert Camus. Camus and Grindat published a series of photographs of the Sorgue River in southern France.
In the late 1940s, a Czech photographer Emilia Medkova created a series of surrealist works. She created documentary images of the post-war urban landscape, which was often oppressive and miserable. Halfway across the world, Mexican photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo also experimented with Surrealism in her famous portraits of artists Frida Kahlo and Maria Izquierdo. Around the same period, American Francesca Woodman explored the relationship between the body and the exterior surroundings through a series of black-and-white prints in which her body was only partly visible.
Portrait Photographers & Female Photographers
Portrait photography was the most popular kind of photography since many people wanted their photos taken at studios. In the United States, Marian Hooper Adams (1843-1885) was one of the first female portrait photographers. She snapped countless photos of her family members, friends, and even political figures while she did all photo developing by herself. Another American, Sarah Chote Sears, was an amateur photographer who gained international acclaim for her photos of flowers and fine portraits. She was elected as a member of the Photo-Secession movement and a member of the Linked Ring Society.
Chicago’s Elizabeth Buehrmann specialized in taking photos of elite society, including businessmen and women of high society, in their own homes. In 1907 she became a member of the Paris Photo-Club.
Other notable photographers include Caroline Gurrey, who took shots of mixed-race children in Hawaii. Doris Ulmann took portraits of famous intellectual figures as well as the mountain populations of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the 1930s, Consuelo Kanaga captured images of writers and famous artists who stood models for her artistic portraits. At the same time in Hollywood, Ruth Harriet Louise was the first woman to run Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers’ portrait photography studio. From 1925 to 1930, she took photos of celebrities such as Greta Garbo.
African American Female Photographers
For a long time, African American women were excluded from professional photography. In the mid-twentieth century, African American women began creating artistic works that showcased the life of people of color in America.
Carrie Mae Weems from Portland, Oregon, began her photography career in 1973. Weems’ success stems from her combination of different art forms to explore the relationships of powers. She is often the subject of her work in which she aims to expose and explore racism, gender relations, power struggles, and sexism.
Coreen Simpson is a photojournalist who began her career as a writer. Simpson used photojournalism to travel the world and tell the stories of diverse peoples. She created visual narratives for the diverse people she photographed. She studied Frank Stewart’s process as well as the history of photography to come up with her unique visual style.
Other well-known African American female photographers include Lorna Simpson, who specialized in fashion photography, and Susan Ross, who co-founded Sistagraphy, a female photographer’s collective in Atlanta, Georgia.
The second wave feminist movement of the late twentieth century gave rise to the popularization of lesbian photographers’ works. Much lesbian photography of the 19th and early 20th century was lost, hidden, or destroyed. The earliest known lesbian photographer was Emma Jean Gay (1830-1919), who earned a living as a professional photographer. Alice Austen (1866-1952) documented lesbians, many of them her friends who dressed up as men or took part in masculine activities (such as smoking) in photos. Lesbian photographers’ work documented women engaged in intimate same-sex relationships without being overtly erotic. Most images were kept for personal use and never got published in commercial publications.
As with all art forms, photography is constantly evolving, and women are now at the forefront of changes and improvements, creating notable works of art. The early pioneers of photography paved the way for women’s success in this popular art form.
Our 3 Favorite Videos Highlighting Women in Photography:
YouTube is filled with photography videos and below we have chosen our 3 favorite videos which highlight various aspects of females and women within the photography world:
1. Early Women Photographers
This deep dive into the early days of photography and the pioneering female photographers and their work. Truly stunning to go back in time and see how influential women truly were within the photography world:
2. 12 Female Photographers You Need to Know
In case you haven’t heard of these culture bending female photographers, watch this quick video for a nice recap:
3. Women in the History of Photography
This short documentary-like video features the early women involved in the history of photography.
(Women in photography featured image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/women-girls-ladies-people-friends-2608147/)
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